The First Consciousness of Self
Updated: Jun 15, 2018
On July 17, 1936, the Spanish Civil War began.
I, however, was only four years old at the time, and far more concerned with making a steering wheel out of a plate in my grandmother's kitchen or skipping rocks across the river.
But a story must begin at the beginning, and that is precisely what I shall do.
At the age of four, my parents decided to take me to visit my grandmother in Torre Velilla. I traveled with them from my native village of Luceni and began my vacation, which, to me, was nothing more than that. But the war broke out while I was away from my home, and now my parents and I were on opposing sides. Had I been older, I suppose I would have realized that my chances of ever seeing my parents again were slim, that my country was about to be utterly decimated, and that I was about to spend three years in misery. But my tiny mind could only recognize the fact that I was with my kindly grandmother.
She was married to a doctor that made a habit of eating six eggs every day (and whose untimely death was likely caused by this practice). How he could be a medical professional and consider this a good idea, I'll never know.
My earliest memories are of being forced to nap after lunch and listening to conversations outside through my open window. In the heat of summer, open windows were not exactly optional. I would listen to them for as long as I could before falling asleep.
One day, a complete mystery was unveiled before my eyes. We were invited to the home of my grandmother's friend for supper. While the women cooked, someone was asked how they would like their eggs prepared and the response was "an omelet, please."
This was the first time I ever saw an omelet in my life, and I had lived four long years believing that eggs could only be fried. How could it be that both this man's omelet and my fried egg were the same thing? The egg was a magical shapeshifting food, really.
There was very, very little to do. It was a minuscule village and we were practically alone. A letter from the Red Cross with updates concerning the war arrived twice a year, but this was hardly any comfort.
Finally, one day, my grandmother said that we were to go on a walk. I did not understand why, but I did so without complaint. As we crossed a bridge, we came across a woman that was walking toward us (and toward our village behind us). She said that she was going there to seek refuge, as a small refugee camp had been set up.
And only a few moments later, after we had parted ways and left her behind, a bomb was dropped upon her supposed refuge and everyone there was killed. Our strange walk, its purpose only known by my grandmother, had saved us.
Before I quite knew what was happening, she took me with her to a cave that was beside a river. It was a cave that was utilized for the storage of livestock (all of which had been eaten long before). This became our home for eighteen days while our small, quiet village was bombed. Some previous refugees had left a mattress or two inside, so we pressed them up against the entrance to the cave to ward off any shrapnel and tried to live as quietly as we could.
The bombing was almost always during the day, so at night I would sometimes sneak out of the cave and skip stones across the nearby river, drowning in the beloved silence. I thought about magical eggs and the conversations downstairs and every cherished thing that was being destroyed in my nearby village. I could not understand the reason for any of it, but I was finally coming to realize that nothing would ever be as it was before.
The bombing ended after the eighteenth day and we made the decision to return to our village. We entered what we thought we would recognize to find absolutely nothing. Everything was destroyed. Our home was nothing more than a staircase leading into the sky.
As there was little to do in the empty corpse of a village, we moved on. We knew that there were promises of free food in the nearby town of Alcañiz, so we headed that way.
Our first greeting upon entering the town was a dead man draped over a mule that was crossing the street. For one reason or another, this image has never left me.
We entered a soup kitchen where countless refugees were huddled together, taking whatever food they could. By some miracle, an aunt of mine, Maria, was there. She had been a nurse on Franco's Nationalist side. She saw us and immediately took us away with her, knowing that she could bring me to my lost parents.
I began my new life with my parents, bidding my dear grandmother goodbye and starting anew. They took me home with them and gave me my first bath in years. It had been so long that I did not even know what they were doing. I was scrubbed and polished until I was a new boy, and they dressed me in a little sailor suit they had bought for me. I was a new person, but my mind, my memories, would never be renewed.